Reflecting, towards the end of her career as a General Practitioner, on the gift and the burden of intimate connection with so many lives, Sue Butler took up walking and creative writing, considering these unpredictable forms of meditation on life in all its grace, pain and peculiarity. Sue's poems have appeared in One Hand Clapping, Spelt Magazine, Poetry and Covid, the Hippocrates Prize Anthology, and the Whirlagust series from Yaffle Press – publisher of her pamphlet, Learning from the Body.
Equality for Boys
Did his mother make him up,
brush and pinch his cheeks and lips,
paint him, rosy, healthy, hearty
as the other boys at parties?
Did they ask him if he knew
his underwear was on display
to girls with hormones all askew,
did his armpits need a shave?
Did they tell him if he tried
he might just get in to medicine.
Men needed to be qualified
to study beside the women.
Did his patients call him nurse
and his seniors call him dear?
Did they say 'What a waste'
when he married and then, when
he carried on, suggest a nice
little job – family planning
or child health – should suffice
Obstetrics wasn’t for men.
Did they check who would take
his calls at night? Did school
phone him to say his child
was sick? Or they were looking
for an extra for the history trip?
When he came home in time
to lift his bath-warm son to drip
on his knee, discuss how yellow
ducks floated and real ones flew,
and heard the work phone ring,
did he begin
to see their point of view?
After cataract surgery
Daily she wakes to the infinite variations
clouds play on the sun, the sliver of light
between blind and wall no longer
a slur of soft pastel but sharp
as a quartz vein through a cobble,
bright as the bowl of the half scallop
she picked from the beach in Clachtoll.
She sees the jut of the light switch,
its small hooked shadow, the unblinking
screws on either side, how it has the look
of an owl, how when someone crosses
the landing, the door flaps, briefly supplies wings.
She tests the bad eye, the nicotine sheen
that persists, remembers their first home,
smoke-stained cupboards that even
three scrubbings could not make clean,
closes that eye to make all bright again.
A three millimetre incision, narrow
as a baby tooth. Her vision become
falls of sari silk, surf breaking turquoise
in the sun, light splintered, gathering,
soft and precise as hoar frost.
The work of women
The doctor keeps the stitches small and even
as she was taught in school by the sisters,
working by hand down the long length
of a skirt, and back to make the French seam.
A single lamp lights her work. The cone
of starch white light picks up the smallest pucker,
every crooked stitch, standing at her shoulder
as Sister did, pushing her wire rimmed glasses
down her nose. She stitches the slow completion
of the birth, the return of the mother
from the inundation that swept through her.
Beyond the light, mother and baby
begin to learn their separation – the breathy
warmth and chill of mouth rooting for nipple,
clutching, letting fall; the cushiony
curves of cheek and breast; the astonishing,
instant fit of fist and finger. Voices
spill from the corridor, calm the havoc
of other births, transform parents
into grandparents, fade unnoticed
beneath the absorbing catch on skin
of needle, lips, fingers. Nearly done.
The doctor thinks of the nuns as she cuts
the last stitch, how they prayed together
for each other. Beneath her gown, too small
yet to tent the flesh, her baby stretches,
rolls, settles back into dreams.
Equality for Boys: Learning from the Body (Yaffle Press)
After cataract surgery: One Hand Clapping
The work of women: 2020 Hippocrates Prize Anthology
(The Hippocrates Press)